Five signs of the eliminationist instinct in today’s workplaces

(Image courtesy of

(Image courtesy of

We typically hear the term “eliminationist” in association with massacres and genocides. The eliminationist instinct captures a facile ability to regard other human beings as objects to be tormented, excised, or forgotten. When this form of dehumanization surfaces on a mass scale, it fuels some the worst outrages in human history.

In addition, manifestations of the eliminationist instinct are hardly limited to large-scale horrors. They may appear in the workplace as well. True, the perpetrators are not mass killers, but their actions embody an easy ability to dehumanize others. Lacking empathy for their targets, they ply their trade with words and bureaucratic actions, rather than with weapons or instruments of physical torture.

Here are five ways in which I see the eliminationist instinct manifesting itself in our worst contemporary workplaces:

1. Workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is motivated by a desire to cause distress or harm to a target. In its most virulent forms, it can have a destructive impact on a target’s health and livelihood. Here is where the eliminationist instinct may be specially present, with a huge capacity for dehumanization. The target is regarded as something that can and should be rubbed out.

2. Whistleblower retaliation

Whistleblowers may cause the eliminationist instinct to go on overdrive. In ethically challenged organizations, whistleblowers are regarded as the ultimate traitors. Having turned themselves into disloyal Others, they now deserve retaliation, and if it results in the end of their employment and (not infrequently) their careers, then so be it.

3. Mass layoffs

Not all large-scale layoffs are driven by an eliminationist instinct, but some definitely are so. Take, for instance, a large company that closes a store after the workers have voted to unionize. Fueled by a determination to keep wages low and not be subject to workers’ collective bargaining efforts, the company shuts it down, hoping to send a message to employees at other locations about the fate that awaits them if they try the same thing.

4. Same-day terminations

For years, we’ve had the so-called “exit parade,” an inhumane HR practice in which a worker is called into an office, informed of her termination, and escorted out of the building, sometimes by a security guard. This degradation ceremony instantly transforms a loyal employee into a threat to be removed. It also sends a terrible message to those who remain about their worth to the employer once it is “done” with them. And now we’re seeing layoffs by standardized emails, about as cold and impersonal a way to terminate a worker as one could imagine.

5. Creating “unpersons”

For some bosses and organizations, it’s not enough simply to get rid of someone. They also must turn the departed worker into an “unperson.” Many years ago, George Orwell referred to “unpersons” as those whose existence would be expunged from records and memories by repressive governments. Today, in all sectors, the creation of unpersons is as easy as removing any reference to them from the organization’s website and minimizing future mentions of them and their contributions.


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This post was revised in February 2023.

18 responses

  1. Thanks for posting this, David. I shivered when I saw the word “instinct” as somehow it confers legitimacy and naturalness about it. Thanks also for the reference to “unpersons”…ostracism in the extreme. I particularly appreciate how you talk about how these phenomena may be present in our workplaces and communities.

    Concepts I have found particularly useful are moral exclusion and scope of justice (associated with Morton Deutsch and colleagues). This is the idea that we have boundaries of fairness and morality that can be extended (or not) to other people and groups. Not surprisingly, those outside the group are outside the scope of justice or excluded morally. this opens the door for treating them in ways that one would never treat members within the circle. When conflicts escalate or people feel threatened, these boundaries become more rigid.

    • LL, thank you for suggesting and explaining terms drawn from dispute resolution to help frame our understanding of these employment practices and dynamics. They help us to make sense of this — and you can’t go wrong by citing Morton Deutsch!

      I decided to use the term “instinct” because I believe that with the worst perpetrators of these behaviors, the drive to act has become more or less baked into them. How much of this is due to diagnosable personality disorders, I can’t say. (Maybe some of my clinical psych friends could render a more informed opinion.) In any case I don’t think they experience much, if any, internal struggle over deciding whether to treat people in such a manner. It comes fairly naturally.

  2. Shortly after my friend Marlene Braun committed suicide, May 2, 2005, a photograph of her team on the Carrizo was photoshopped to remove her picture. I know exactly what you are saying. The thing is, it can all be rationalized. As department chair, I have removed people from our website. What we do to adjunct labor, even without being conscious bullies, is participation in an abusive system. But the bully takes a special delight in erasing the person. It’s so harmful and shameful. Thank you for writing your post, David.

    • Kathy, the ability to quickly edit a website has become very germane to this discussion, yes?!?!

      Certainly the routine, administrative task of adding and removing names does not = eliminationist behavior. It boils down to intention. And as you note with Marlene and the editing of images, it can go pretty far. I’d bet that some of the abusers get a pleasurable hormone release when they do this and hit “enter.”

  3. Oh boy. As I enter my third month of “exclusion” or “excision” from the morally challenged company I last worked for, I find my current mental health symptoms, shall we say, to be based on reactions of shock, grief and disbelief to name a few. More and more – in line with my experience – people are having companies decide when they should retire without regard to their current financial status ( having been denied a raise perhaps for years), their ability to find another job at that particular age, the state of their health (due to intense bullying) which is labeled age related, anything that is going on in their lives at the time of termination ( the discovery of his son’s brain cancer for one colleague at my previous job) plus the loss of their health insurance and huge delays in setting up unaffordable COBRA), the difficulty of sharing one’s predicament without shame and targeting for more bullying behavior by a society that by and large (so far!) thinks “some” bullying should exist so managers can keep their employees in line. Or the often unsaid,”Well, your manager should know whether you were a problem or not.”
    David, I thank you again for so brilliantly and elegantly putting more and more of the experience of bullying in the workplace into solid words not to be reckoned with. By me anyway!!

    • Stenjess, I’m sorry that your understanding of all this is so personal. You’ve identified one more angle on this, the practice of pushing out senior and long-time workers. We’re seeing it everywhere, especially since the economic meltdown. It’s definitely related to these eliminationist instincts.

  4. How is it that I seem to repeatedly be the target of workplace bullying; I have blamed and shamed myself for years, with the help of parents, therapists and others who seem to think I bring this upon myself. Do you have any insight or support for this phenomenon? People say I am too honest, too individualistic, too nice, try too hard, am not assertive enough, trigger hostility or jealousy in others.

    • This is a very, very complicated topic. Over the years I’ve attended conference presentations on the topic of profiling likely bullying targets, especially repeat targets. Unfortunately, too many of these discussions spiral quickly into emotional debates over whether this is blaming the victim.

      My quick read on this? Certainly it’s possible for someone to act or present themselves in a way that increases or decreases the likelihood of being bullied. However: (1) This does not excuse bullying behavior, it only helps to explain the interactions that were part of it; and (2) Rather than engaging in self-blame and self-shame, it may be more helpful to work with someone toward understanding what happened in the past and what changes one can make in the future.

    • Hi, I have been searching for the answers to why I have been repeatedly the target of bullying. I haven’t found much. The most enlightening piece so far is that I am a threat in whatever way. That combined with being the person who is nice and who doesn’t normally complain, instead works with what I get handed and helps in whatever way I can. Those qualities seem to trigger some dehumanization need in insecure people who want to take things out of context or twist what has been said to “show” other people that I am “really” a conniving, bad person. What is really astounding to me is that so many other people jump on that bandwagon and don’t think for themselves. Unfortunately people outside (therapists, etc.) and even workplace friends are disbelieving about people behaving as bullies and say I am being paranoid and ask what I am doing to make them act that way. The only thing that I think will stop it is education in ideas such as empathy, or for other people to experience it for themselves.

  5. Dr. Yamada,

    This is also very personal to me.

    I experience(ed) all of the 5 signs that you mentioned in your article.

    I have to see a Psychiatrist/Counselor to deal with my personal bully experience. I was diagnosed with PTSD, major depression, and severe anxiety. I originally had depression and anxiety, but not to these higher levels. I also have ADHD and migraines (not from bullying).

    Every day, I feel like my feet are in cement. I have a hard time going out in public (have to push myself to get ready to go). I do not have the desire to do normal activities that others enjoy. This has put much stress on me, my family, and my marriage. I am lucky to have a wonderful husband. He said he sees a big change in me, in that I lost my “joy”. Also, my sexual desire has diminished.

    I tried so hard to fight against the bully(s) for 3 years of my 23-year employment.

    My Counselor said that the PTSD came from putting up with the bully(s) so long. She said that the longer you put up with bullying, the longer it takes to get over; each person has their own timeframe of recovering from this, but it will always be with you.

    I am still not over these dreadful experiences (experienced daily for 3 years). I feel like an insignificant person and lost much of my self-esteem (or feel, like you said, an “unperson”).

    I am unable to work due to fear of this happening again. I was a candidate for the Division of Vocational Rehab. I tried a part-time job and 1 of the 3 women I worked with bullied me. The DVR eventually told me they did not think I could work at this time.

    Adult bullies are excellent at what they do; they must have a “Secret Bully Manual”.

    Like you said, bullying can be “dehumanizing” which it was for me. I found out later that my co-workers were told not to talk to me; I lost co-worker friends but later gained one friend back. She was crying and asking for my forgiveness (which I gave unconditionally). She even sent me a card.

    Sometimes I run into (now bullied ex-coworkers), who worked in my department and they now understand.

    Last week, I ran into one of my ex-coworkers (still working with the bully supervisor). This ex-coworker used to avoid me. This time, she spoke to me a long time about the bully supervisor.

    She finally saw the light! She told me that the bully’s new rule, is that no one can talk “at all” during work. If you are caught talking, you are called into the “bully’s” office and written up; three strikes and you are out; this must be legal for bullies. Can one imagine working like that? When I hear things like that, I become relieved that I am not working there.

    I recently wrote to my Representative about the Healthy WorkPlace Bill. He did not know what I was talking about. This has happened before (when I personally spoke with our Congressman).

    I try spreading the word to whomever I can. I sometimes feel like a liar, because many do not understand, or I feel that I am boring them. I believe that the only way you can understand bullying, is if you experience it, know someone who was bullied, or have studied/read about it.

    Most of my ex-co-workers bullied before me (about 8 in just the department I worked in), just quit. After my 3-year torture, I was let go. The entire company has bullied over 100 employees (different departments) as a whole.

    The paperwork for my dismissal contained 3 check marks “separated, fired, and other”; I never signed the paper. The dismissal paperwork also said I was “rehireable” and that I did nothing wrong.

    Then the company took me to Unemployment Court (40 miles away) 2 times, I had to get a lawyer the 2nd time, but I was granted Unemployment.

    I believe that companies hope employees will quit to avoid paying Unemployment.

    It all boils down to saving the company big money, using bullies to filter out mostly very good long-term employees. This is the cruelest method used against a human being and changes a human being’s life and well being forever.

    Companies do not realize that they will eventually will get a bad reputation. They hire new employees (to replace the old) at half the wage. The new employees may not be as seasoned in their job position (training may be needed). Thus, the company may lose customers, who eventually realize care may be slower, answers not as complete or understood, and there may be more errors.

    Dr. Yamada, I would like to thank you for your passion on this subject, the wonderful, interesting, well thought out, and researched articles you provide us to help humanity. I am sure many Americans that know about you, feel the same. I believe you were born with a strong empathetic soul chosen to end this agony.

    I truly hope that the entire United States becomes “Bully-Free” in the workplace/everywhere; it is so important.

    Children being bullied is a huge problem too. By not tolerating adult workplace bullies, children are observers, and will see and learn what is right (etiquette is becoming a lost art). This can only add positivity to our society. As adults, we need to be the “positive example” for our children; they observe too much negativity. By observing adults practicing no tolerance bullying, it will flow with them as they grow, and can only add to making them better adults.

    • I could have wrote this. I have never seen ‘me’ explained so well. I went through this after 24 years employment, panic and anxiety attacks, depression, can’t function.. And no longer employed and can’t function to find employment.

  6. Employers and managers shoot themselves in the foot by using these tactics. If a person gets too many firings and bullyings and the “exit parade” even complete with security guard, the bullied employee will apply for benefits and become a “tax taker” rather than a “tax payer”. It will be more cost effective to live on welfare than to endure endless “temp” jobs, bullying, downsizing, “early retirement”, etc….The Great American Job helped to make America great in the past…..there were many middle classed people. I guess the rich can pick up the slack for buying stuff while “removed” workers can sit and slack around on welfare or under a bridge.

  7. What is so hard about forced “Early Retirement” along with the harrassment, age and gender discrimination, mobbing, and all the rest, is that I lost intelligent, supportive friends (a whole band of them). I was the Health and Wellness advocate for the entire site, all 250 people there knew I was the person who conducted Biggest Loser weigh-ins, a weekly meditation session, signed people up to have CSA veggie boxes delivered to the site, helped coordinate the Biometric screenings and so much more. I KNEW, admired and worked with these people 365 days a year minus weekends. Work life demanded that we on my team worked evenings, weekends, often when we were sick or on vacation. Try as much as I did to avoid it, work BECAME my life and these people BECAME my family of survival apart from the nasty clique that told you if you were “in,” deserving of help and necessary information to do your job or “out,” awaiting expulsion from the conpany. I am lucky – thank God I have another whole career in music and lots of friends, but everyone understands when you say ,”Sorry -can’t- I have to work late” or something. You become a person who is otherwise occupied, not needing them entirely. I LOVED what I did and was very very good at it. I did it (Medical IT) as if it were an art.
    When I was harassed, bullied and finally terminated, all these people I was connected to were suddenly excised from my life and I from theirs. It is a horrible, disorienting feeling of loss (like losing friends and neighbors in a landslide) in addition to the rage and humiliation at suddenly becoming an “unperson,” totally dispensable to the company I gave so much to.
    To some extent, I lost my ability to function as a technical person – I didn’t believe I could after all that had been said and done to me. It was like being brainwashed as a POW.
    AND if you tell certain friends of your predicament and the fear of not finding a similarly compensating job at your age, some may say unintentionally harmful things implying you deserved this, maybe you SHOULD retire ( I don’t want to retire, damn it!), they just don’t “get” what happened, why don’t you just do “this,” essentially writing things off as no big deal, or ask you if you’re “feeling better” in a couple of days. I was in such shock at also having my intense schedule suddenly basically totally gone that for two months (and I’m not out of the woods yet), aside from madly applying for other jobs, I didn’t feel I knew who I was or where I should be. I know some of my friends at work were so absolutely horrified at the swiftness and coldness of my expulsion that they literally couldn’t deal with it and did not return emails or phone calls. Others on my team had to be “talked down off the wall” by management. It is not an experience to be brushed aside or taken lightly. I did not even become fully aware of the impact on me until after the expulsion because I became occupied with learning Java when my manager was ignoring me for weeks or a month at a time. I bought a fancy telescope and renewed my interest in Astronomy. I did everything in my power to avoid ruminating on what management was thinking or doing aside from documenting everything for my EEOC gender and age claim. So when suddenly I was terminated, though I wasn’t deluded into thinking it wasn’t going to happen, all of the feelings I had pushed down to keep from quitting in a rage, came flooding back! No one should have to endure this.

  8. If someone like you can be terminated, anyone can. I was not totally indispensable as an employee. I had my problems. I showed up, I worked, but I wasn’t really like you. Why did they terminate you? Didn’t want to pay the benefits?

  9. I was bullied at a workplace, ostracized and humiliated. The mob was lead by someone of influence in a small organization. I tried extensively to remedy the situation to no avail. I am not a quitter and sought consistently to come to a productive resolution. I finally had to challenge how I was treated through official grievance protocols which led to my termination under grounds my claims were unsubstantiated. I was never spoken to so I have some bias as the extent of the investigation. I thought I would take the high road and move on. The fact that i had a tape recorder down my shirt during the last couple of intense meetings was left unsaid. I thought I would be bettered eventually for the lessons the experience had taught me. I even sought professional help in this regard. Unfortunately certain individuals could not accept their own role in the relationship break down and their vindictiveness which I experienced continues a year later. Although I excel at every job interview i have attended and they have been keen to call references, potential employers never call additional references on the list I have provided and never respond to my professional email or phone inquiries. It’s been a year. I am no longer able to take care of myself financially. If it weren’t for a kindly aunt, I would be homeless. I am genuinely out of ideas and wits.

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